OSince the name of this dish is translated – “young peas in the French style” – it has a rather starchy sound, when in fact it should be the opposite. It’s a joyous celebration of spring produce, sumptuously made with lots of butter in a method described as: typically French by Mrs Acton Long ago in 1845. Prepared this way, peas, which have become a year-round staple in the freezer and tipped from bag to pan to plate without a second thought, may once again take center stage; Elizabeth David considering petits pois à la française “a dish, of course, to serve on its own,” although Simon Hopkinson and Lindsey Bareham suggest eating it with triangles of fried bread. I also think it goes quite well with a plain cooked piece of fish, or plain rice.
Controversial. Interwar French chef and food writer Xavier Marcel Boulestin insists that the peas in question should be “as small as possible”, and David reiterates, claiming that the dish “is only possible…when the youngest, smallest, most tender peas are available”. Hopkinson and Bareham note in The Years of the Shrimp Cocktail that, “strangely, the dish actually turns out to be better canned rather than frozen, and you’d be surprised to hear how many people love the taste of canned peas,” before it falls firmly on the fresh side . Raymond Blanc believes that “freshly picked young peas are always the best”, but admits that “frozen peas are also excellent”, while Anne Willan dares to swim against the tide with her bold statement that “you don’t need peas, but rather the thick of the mid-season”.
While I’m making a significant investment in two huge bags of fresh peas, it’s impossible to guarantee the size of the seeds in them, or vouch for their age, unless you grow the things yourself (or get them directly from someone). who does that). (the sugars in peas convert to starches as soon as they are picked, so even the tiniest peas can be a disappointment in the flavor department if they’re on the road for several days). Since jarred peas aren’t readily available here (and also come ready-made, which isn’t ideal for our purposes), I’d recommend frozen peas as the best substitute for home-grown or similar brand-new samples.
If I were to use frozen peas, I’d come second Willan’s recommendation in The Country Cooking of France to use larger peas, often sold as “garden peas”, rather than your real petits pois – they are pleasantly fatty and buttery, which goes well with the dish as a whole. (I know the name of the dish literally calls for petits pois, but I suspect that particular distinction probably has more to do with young sweet peas versus older, mealy ones, than with the difference between berry-sized peas and berry-sized peas. the size of a raisin – and if petits pois is what you have, use them instead).
Nigella Lawson writes in: How to eat that for this dish she thaws frozen peas before use, which is sensible as the cooking method prefers the minimum amount of liquid, and thawing allows you to drain the peas before adding them to the pan. However, if you don’t have the time, that’s okay.
The unsung but in my opinion essential supporting role in this particular production is lettuce – you could make petits pois à la française sans la laitue, but it adds a very different and delicious texture to the dish, as well as soaking up a lot of the delicious, buttery liquid. Curiously, the great chef Auguste Escoffier thinks that wilted lettuce “might not be to everyone’s taste”, while Richard Olney in The French Menu Cookbook that, “although the taste of the lettuce stewed with the peas enhances them, serving the lettuce with the peas detracts from their rare delicacy”, and advises removing it before serving.
I disagree, though I like Olney’s method of coating the pan with leaves, so that the peas are encased and protected from direct heat. You could shred the rest like Lawson, Hopkinson, and Bareham do, but I enjoy the silky smoothness of the larger leaves in the recipes that leave them whole. However, one woman is silky, the other is slimy, so I’ll leave the decision to you.
Older recipes call for green lettuce, while newer ones seem to be attached to the firmer cos or its little brother, the gem. Again, your pick: the ribby cos family retains some texture and crunch even after cooking, while softer lettuces, which I prefer here, will shrink like spinach.
Onions are a must, but it’s nearly impossible for most of us to find the small chopped onions needed in most traditional versions of the dish – red and brown are about the limit in most greengrocers. Standard scallions are too mild to cook that long, so I went for the more bulbous stuff sold as “salad onions”; if you can’t find them, use shallots.
Bacon is a recent addition to the ingredient list, and, if Rowley Leigh notes:strictly speaking, this makes the dish petits pois au lard (an enticing name if I’ve ever heard one), but it’s one that works really well with peas, onions, and butter. I’ve left it out, though, as the dish is absolutely delicious, but if the idea appeals to you, fry about 15g diced, unsmoked, thick-cut streaky bacon or pancetta per person in two tablespoons of butter until it starts to set fat, then scoop it out and add to the pan with the peas.
Escoffier cooks his peas with a bouquet garni, just like Willan. Hopkinson and Bareham use parsley, Olney puts some thyme in the lettuce, while Leigh suggests mint, as does Lawson, who sprinkles it on top afterwards (“basil is delicious too: to me it always smells like summer”). I like the combination of peas and fresh mint, but again, as you wish.
Sugar is often added, but may not be necessary depending on the sweetness of your peas. Taste at the end and decide.
If you think the type of pea is controversial, wait until you hear how long to cook them. (Moderate) horror greets a photo I posted online of Olney’s 45-minute yellow-green peas, as we’re used to them looking just as vibrant green and springy as the day they were picked. But as delicious as blanched petits pois are, not to mention raw peas fresh from the pod, there are more ways to prepare a vegetable than al dente, and not everything you eat has to look good on Instagram. see.
Blanc’s recipe, in which the peas are cooked for just a few minutes, is delicious, but the main ingredient remains separate from the sauce, rather than melting into it; David was right when she wrote 60 years ago French Provincial Cooking that “the major difference between the way peas are served in French and English cooking is that, while we cook ours so that each pea is, so to speak, separate (and very often a separate bullet), the French cook them so that they are bound together with a sauce, although that sauce usually consists only of butter”.
If it makes you feel better, remember that this is a much gentler cooking method than the quick cooking method frozen peas are typically exposed to. The only liquid should be that of the lettuce and, as I think the acidity enhances the dish immensely, Leigh’s splash of white wine (Lawson suggests chicken stock, which is a good alternative, especially if you’re not using bacon), also like of course a generous amount of butter, reduced, as Willan points out, so that it coats the peas in a rich, yet delicately flavored sauce. Give me a large bowl of this, a small spoon, and perhaps some bread to mop up the juices, and I am a very happy woman indeed.
Perfect petits pois à la française
Preparation 10 minutes
Cook 35 minutes
8 salad onionsor small round shallots
60 g butterat room temperature
1 soft green lettuceseparated into leaves
400 g frozen peasthawed and drained, or 1 kg fresh young peas in the pods, peeled
10 or so mint leaves
75 ml white wine
½ tsp sugar (optional)
Trim the salad onions and, if the bulbs are very large, cut them in half. Cut the fleshy pieces of the green parts into short lengths.
(If using shallots, peel, trim and, unless very small, halve).
Spread half of the butter in the bottom of a medium saucepan, then use the outer leaves of the lettuce to line the pan.
Add the peas, onions, half of the mint, a generous pinch of salt, the remaining butter, diced and placed in between the peas, and the wine.
Cover with the rest of the lettuce so that the peas are coated.
Place the pan over medium heat and bring the contents to a boil.
Cover, turn the heat to low and simmer very gently for about 30 minutes, shaking the pan occasionally, until the peas are soft and buttery.
Transfer the vegetables to a warm serving bowl with a slotted spoon and taste – if you think the sugar is needed, add it to the liquid in the pan. Keep the vegetables warm, bring the liquid in the pan to a boil and let it bubble until it has thickened slightly. Pour over the pea-lettuce mixture, sprinkle over the remaining mint and serve.
British readers: click to buy these ingredients from Ocado
Petits pois à la française, or braised peas and lettuce – whatever you call it, what do you think of yellow, slow-cooked peas and how do you prefer to eat them? Will anyone admit to enjoying the canned variety more than fresh, and our obsession with barely cooked, unripe peas is all thanks to the marketing efforts of frozen food giantsas was suggested to me last week?